Urtica dioica, commonly known as stinging nettle, is a perennial herb growing throughout many continents. The herb is native to Asia and north Africa, but has travelled to Europe, North America, and even in some parts of the South Pacific.
It gets its common name from the stinging hairs, known as trichomes. These fine hairs along the stem puncture the skin and release histamine, an irritant.
This causes a stinging sensation in whoever touched it. Despite the plant’s painful defense, it is edible. It has also been a reliable ingredient to medicines for thousands of years.
Stinging nettle is a delight in the kitchen as well as a staple in every homesteader’s medicine cabinet. It is relatively easy to identify, although there are look-alikes to watch out for.
This plant has also been used by native Americans and rural Europeans for hundreds of years. This should come to no surprise, considering the high level of nutrients packed inside leaves.
The Anatomy of the Stinging Nettle
Dioica is a large weed, growing between three to eight feet tall. Harvesters note that since the weed is a perennial, it is easiest to identify when it is erect.
The weed’s flowers are small and a greenish white, typically just slightly paler than the leaves. These nondescript flowers make the plant harder to notice, no doubt a less painful defensive adaptation.
Nettles flower between late May and October, thus providing insects with a lot of pre-winter nutrition.
Although still edible, many gardeners advise to only eat leaves harvested through April, before the flowers bloom.
As the summer begins, the leaves grow tougher. In late fall, the weed dies into tough, yellow roots for the winter.
The leaves grow in an opposite pattern. This means that the leaves grow on opposite sides but at the same level (called a node) on the stem.
The leaves themselves are small, growing between three to six inches long, and one to three inches wide.
Each leaf is ovular shaped, with lacerated edges. The leaves are a lush green, much loved by foragers. However, they are not so keen on the touch of leaves.
Some believe that the leaves are prickly, although they certainly lack the sting of the stalks.
Stinging nettle isn’t famous for its flowers. The flowers themselves are small and usually greenish white, making them difficult to notice.
Some believe this adaptation protects the plant from wildlife, such as deer, because there are no bright, large flowers to attract herbivores.
The flowers grow in small clusters along spikes that branch out from the leaf axils. Male and female organs grow on separate branches.
Unlike leaves, which grow in an opposite pattern, flowers grow in whorled clusters.
Trichomes are the fine hairs growing along the stem of stinging nettle. These little appendages secrete histamine and other toxic substances as a defense mechanism.
When you grab the stem of a stinging nettle, the trichomes penetrate your skin and release histamine, which is normally produced as an anti-allergen by white blood cells, but also causes inflammation of the skin and irritation.
However, they aren’t just there to deter hungry species. The hairs themselves have been shown to increase the thickness of the epidermis.
This is because they increase the number of fatty acids in epidermal cells. These fats also regulate temperature and reduce evaporation.
Urtica dioica has six known subspecies, five of which have the infamous trichomes. A subspecies is a taxonomic category below a species.
Typically, a subspecies is permanently geographically isolated. Thus, rather than being its own species, a subspecies is a regional variety of a pre-existing species.
The two most common subspecies of nettle in the United States are Uritca dioica ssp. Gracilis and Urtica dioica ssp. Dioica.
Gracilis, commonly known as California nettle, is a perennial native to the United States and Canada.
As the common name suggests, this subspecies is native to California, but can be found as far east as New York.
It has a slightly shorter bloom period than ordinary dioica, as it blooms between May-September.
You’ll find it in hardiness zones 9a to 10a, meaning it can handle winter lows between 20℉ (-6.7℃) to 35℉ (1.7℃). As this suggests, it prefers warmer, sunnier climates.
It mostly grows along the northern coast near San Francisco and San Jose, but can also be found near Los Angeles, the non-coastal Bakersfield, and even Reno, Nevada.
The weed attracts many species of butterfly, including Nymphalis milberti (Milbert’s tortoiseshell), and Vanessa atalanta (red admiral).
Galeopsifola, commonly known as the fen nettle, is different from California and common stinging nettle in that it does not have stinging hairs, except for rare cases.
If anything, it is typically covered in fine, dense, non-stinging hairs. It also differs from common nettle in that the leaves appear on higher nodes.
It also grows up to seven feet tall. Despite these small differences, galeopsifola and dioica have been known to crossbreed and form plants containing both non stinging hairs and trichomes.
Fen nettle can be found throughout Europe. In western Europe, it thrives in rural England (such as the fenland district), and Ireland. It prefers damp, neutral soils along riverbanks.
There are a few other nettles that amateur foragers might mistake for stinging nettle. Luckily, the two most common are edible.
That being said, if you are unsure, ask someone more experienced. Wood nettle and dwarf nettle share many characteristics of stinging nettle, but there are some differences that help distinguish them.
Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) is another herbaceous perennial.
It belongs to the larger nettle family (Urticaceae) and grows in many of the same regions as stinging nettle, as it prefers moist soils and partial sun.
The flowers are difficult to notice. It can also be invasive due to its multiple means of reproduction.
These nettles typically grow between 2-4 feet tall, making them slightly shorter than your average stinging nettle. It has a more complicated leaf system than stinging nettle.
The lower to middle leaves grow in an alternate pattern, while the upper leaves grow opposite. Thus, in order to determine what kind of plant you have, you need to observe the whole stem.
If you only go by the upper leaves, you may think you have stinging nettle. If you only go by the lower leaves, you may mistake it for dwarf nettle.
Dwarf nettle is native to Asia and north Africa. It was introduced to Europe, North America, and Australia, where it is now considered an invasive species.
Unlike stinging nettle, dwarf nettle is a short-blooming annual. If you aren’t sure if you have found dwarf or stinging nettle, look closely at the stalk to see how the leaves are growing.
While stinging nettle leaves grow in an opposite pattern, dwarf leaves grow in an alternative pattern.
This means that only one leaf grows at each node, and the leaves at each node form a spiral around the stalk.
If the leaves grow in pairs sticking out opposite ways, you have stinging nettle. If they grow in a spiral around the stalk, you have dwarf nettle.
The leaves of urens are covered in fine hairs containing formic acid, the same poison in ant stings. This isn’t deadly but will irritate your skin.
This is why it’s important to wear gloves, and maybe even protective glasses. If you have to grab the stalk, sturdy gloves are necessary.
Dwarf nettle also has fine hairs growing along its stem that sting anyone who touches it; however, foragers agree that the sting is much more powerful and painful than dioica.
Stinging nettle grows abundantly across the United States and many other countries around the globe.
It can be found both in nature and in industrial zones, such as wasteyards, along railroad tracks, and around fences.
Like many weeds, nettle survives because it is highly adaptable. This is why you can find it in just about every state except for Hawaii. You’ll even find it in Canada and northern Mexico.
Stinging nettle is a versatile, hardy weed. It grows in hardiness zones three through ten, meaning it can survive low winter temperatures between -35℉ (-37.2℃) and +40℉ (+4.4℃).
Nettle thrives in moisture rich soils. You can find it growing all across the United States.
However, it is concentrated most heavily along the coasts, as well as in the Midwest, near the Great Lakes.
It is a favorite among foragers in Minnesota. As the land of 1000 lakes, Minnesota has the moist soil this plant loves.
Although the winters are harsh, this plant can take the cold.
The weed is also present in states like Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, or Kentucky, but much harder to find than up north.
The central southern United States is too dry and sunny for the nettle’s liking.
This plant can grow in full sun or part shade. Thus, you can find it growing along a fence, with full sun exposure, or in thickets and sunnier woodland areas.
At first touch, you may not think stinging nettle is edible. However, the histamine-filed trichomes along the stalk are a natural defense mechanism.
The leaves of the plant are tasty and rich in nutrients. They are a popular substitute for spinach in soups and salads, and can even be cooked on its own, like asparagus.
Stinging Nettle and Potato Soup
Nettle and potato soup is a hardy, rich meal all in itself. The nettles give the soup a vibrant green color, and pack the soup full of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and good fats. This soup will leave you full but pouring another bowl anyway!
First, blanche the nettles. Bring a pot of water to boil and prepare a bowl of iced water.
Drop the leaves in the boiling water for about two minutes, and then using a pair of tongs, transfer them to the ice water.
Note that you should wear gloves for this portion of the stinging nettle recipe. Once you strain the nettles, you don’t need to since any remaining stems with hairs lose their stinging power from the blanching.
Sauté chopped shallots and celery in a pan of olive oil and melted butter for five minutes. Add chopped potatoes, chicken stock, bay leaf, and thyme. Let the mixture simmer for five minutes.
Roughly chop the nettles and add three to four cups of them to the soup pot. Add about 1-2 cups of water, just enough to cover the nettles and potatoes. Let simmer for another fifteen minutes.
Remove the bay leaves and thyme from the pot. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup. Then add the bay leaves and thyme back in.
Add salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste. Swirl in the cream before serving, and garnish with fresh mint.
Stinging Nettle Salve
While stinging nettle causes irritation in those who touch it, it can, ironically, soothe pain as well.
When leaves come into contact with a part of the body that is already in pain, the nettle actually reduces the number of inflammatory chemicals in the area and interferes with how the body transmits pain signals.
Stinging nettle has been proven to help with inflammation, joint pain, and arthritis. Thus, many homesteaders make stinging nettle salves to use at home.
To make the salve, forage plenty of stinging nettle and dandelions. Allow the dandelion flowers and stinging nettle leaves to dry overnight.
Add the plants to a crockpot or slow cooker, but set the temperature just as warm. Even the low cooking setting is too high for infusion.
Add eight ounces of olive oil per plant. You should only need around 16 ounces of oil all together. Let the leaves, flowers, and oil infuse in the pot for 24 hours.
Fill the spout of a pan with water and heat it on the lowest stove temperature. Add the infusion from the crockpot. Add an ounce of beeswax to another pot that is also not too hot.
Once the beeswax melts, pour it into the warm oil infusion. The beeswax may solidify right away, that’s good. Give the mixture a gentle stir and decant it into small jars.
Leave the jars on the counter at room temperature to cool.
Stinging Nettle Tea
Stinging nettle tea is not only delicious, but great for general body health. Nettles have been used to treat anemia, UTIs, and diabetes.
To make the tea, you’ll need nettle leaves, dried rose hips (with the seeds removed), dried mint leaves, and honey to taste. Use an equal amount of each dry ingredient.
Combine the dry ingredients in a mason jar (1 teaspoon of leaf mixture per eight-ounce cup).
Pour boiling water over the leaves and let them steep for 2-3 minutes, or 3-4 minutes if you want a stronger tasting tea. Strain out the leaves before drinking and add honey to sweeten.
If you want a quick and easy natural meal, nettle leaves themselves make for a yummy lunch out on the porch. Much like asparagus, stinging nettle tastes great just sauteed with some seasoning.
The key to standalone nettles is harvesting the leaves before the plant is fully mature.
These younger stalks have the most tender leaves, while the leaves on mature stalks can be tougher. Aim for a plant that is about two feet tall.
To forage the stinging nettle, grab the plant by the stalk in one gloved hand, and cut it with scissors or a knife in the other. Then cut the leaves off the stalk and into a large bowl.
Although stinging nettle is considered a noxious weed in many areas, it can be beneficial to grow it in your garden. The weed grows in soils rich with nitrogen and phosphorus. Growth of nettle indicates that soil is very fertile.
Nettles also contain nitrogenous compounds that make it a compost activator. It also supplies magnesium, sulfur, and iron to the soil, which benefit surrounding plants.
As a pollinator, nettle will attract many welcome insects to your garden, such as bees and butterflies.
Stinging nettle spreads two ways, which means you have to watch your garden carefully so that it does not take over.
The flowers, which typically bloom in summer, produce seeds that are scattered across the land by the wind.
Secondly, underground, the weed has a complex horizontal root system that shoots out laterally at advantageous intervals.
These roots, known as rhizomes, form a spreading system common in weeds, allowing them to become invasive.
You can control the spread of nettles by uprooting unexpected new shoots.
Nettle as Homemade Pesticide
Stinging nettle provides food for over 40 species of insects. Additionally, birds feed on the seeds scattered by the wind.
While you want to be careful that the nettle does not take over your garden, it can be a wonderful addition.
Although considered a pest by some, nettle can be used to make a natural, garden-safe pesticide.
Nettle insecticide can be used against powdery mildew, fungal diseases, mites, and more. Insecticide is made from a simple, homemade nettle food.
To make it, simply pour four cups of boiling water over ¼ a pound of nettle leaves. Let the mixture steep overnight.
To incorporate this food into an insecticide, simply dilute 4 oz of strained nettle food with 1 quart of water and a teaspoon of liquid soap. Only spray it on the plants once every seven days, as needed.
Remember to Wear Gloves!
From food to medicine, and even textiles and beer, stinging nettle continues to surprise humans with its many practical uses.
Despite the unwelcoming trichomes, this plant is perfect for foragers at all levels of experience, so long as they remember to wear gloves.
Remember, for food, harvest nettle leaves before May, but for remedies, do so after.
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.